Chèvre (pronounced "SHEV-ruh" or sometimes simply "SHEV") is the French word for goat, and in the culinary arts, it refers to any French cheese made from goat's milk.
It's a shortening of the term fromage de chèvre, which literally means "goat cheese," but presumably the French are comfortable referring to goat cheese simply as "goat", as goat meat is almost never eaten in this region. To say that this attitude stems from the perception that goat meat possesses an unpleasant aroma is not to ignore the influence of regional (and thus ethnic and class) stereotypes involved. There's certainly no stigma around strong smells as they relate to cheese, for instance — indeed, quite the opposite.
In any event, goat's milk (especially raw, i.e. unpasteurized) does boast strong flavors and aromas, which vary according to the breed of goat and their diet. Their food, in turn, varies by region, owing to climate, altitude, and numerous other environmental influences, a set of factors, often invoked when discussing wine, known as terroir.
Another interesting fact about chèvre; if you've ever looked up a particular goat cheese, you might have read something in the description along the lines of "can be eaten from December to April," or "eaten from March to December." This may have led you to wonder why people need to be so fussy about everything. Just eat the cheese when you feel like eating it!
It turns out, however, that there's a good reason for this. Unlike cows, which can be milked all year round, goats only produce milk for 7 to 8 months per year, with the majority coming from March to July. Coupled with the fact goats cheese is usually aged for only a few days to a few weeks (four months being the outside limit), there really are certain goat cheeses that are best during certain months of the year.
Aging Chèvre Develops Intense Flavor
Aging the chèvre produces a number of changes. When fresh and young, chèvre is soft and creamy, with a mild, buttery flavor and white color, similar to cream cheese. The longer it ages, the drier and more crumbly it becomes, which also brings out stronger, tangier flavors and aromas, and the color deepens to a golden yellow.
Aging also produces an outer crust called a rind, which is sometimes washed with brine during aging to develop more flavor. The presence of this rind is why you'll see instructions on how to cut a given cheese. Again, it may seem like culinary fussiness, but there really is a reason.
The objective in cutting is to ensure that each slice has an equal amount of rind. Rounds of cheese are cut into wedge-shaped sections (like pizza slices), cylinders are sliced into rounds, and pyramids are sliced into vertical wedges.
Arguably, the best way to enjoy chèvre is on a fresh French baguette with a glass of wine. A crisp sauvignon pairs well with younger chèvre, and when aged, a woody chardonnay makes a good companion. A fruity red will complement a warmed goat cheese.
When incorporating chèvre in a cheese platter, start with the youngest, softest, mildest cheese and proceed toward the strongest, driest, most mature cheese. If you went in the other direction, your palate will be blown out by the time you get to the mild cheese, and you'll miss the subtleties.
Chèvre will soften but not completely melt when heated. This makes it good to use in pasta dishes and on pizza. Depending on its age (remember, younger is softer), chèvre can be spread on crackers for making canapés, or as an ingredient in salads.
Finally, since goat's milk is relatively low in lactic acid as compared with cow's milk, many people who are lactose intolerant find that they have no problem with chèvre.